For all the talk in recent years about how the Indians would never win the World Series because they lacked a quality front-of-the-rotation pitcher, it was ultimately shoddy work from its innings-eaters that ended Cleveland's five-year stranglehold on the American League Central crown. Dave Burba, Bartolo Colon and Chuck Finley gave the Tribe the league's only trio of 15-game winners, and their combined ERA of 4.17 was better than that of the top three starters on every American League playoff team except the A's. But the rest of the Indians' starters—and thanks to injuries, Cleveland used everyone this side of Sid Monge—won only 18 times and had an ERA of 6.97.
In a related story, reliever Steve Karsay suffered through a miserable second half. After nailing down 19 of his first 24 save opportunities, he lost his job when the Indians acquired Bob Wickman from the Brewers. "I was a little disappointed," says the righthanded Karsay, whose ERA was a run and a half higher as a setup man after the trade. "Nobody wants his job taken away when he feels he's doing a good job."
So manager Charlie Manuel was left with two problems this spring, filling out his rotation and finding a role for Karsay. He decided to kill two birds with one stone and make Karsay the No. 4 starter, which made everyone happy. "In my heart I feel I've always been a starter," Karsay says. "We think his stuff translates better as a starter than as a closer," says general manager John Hart. "He's got starter's stuff."
But Karsay might not have a starter's elbow. He had Tommy John surgery in 1995, and the Indians have used him almost exclusively as a reliever since acquiring him from the A's in '97 The Tribe sent Karsay to visit orthopedist James Andrews in Birmingham in late October. "He knows my elbow better than I do," Karsay says of the man who has operated on his arm four times. Andrews poked and prodded the limb before telling Karsay that throwing between 100 and 110 pitches every five days might actually be easier on his arm than getting up in the bullpen two or three times a night.
Now that he's out of the pen, Karsay is throwing his changeup more, and he's become confident enough in his splitter, which he picked up two years ago, to throw it anytime. That gives him a nasty four-pitch repertoire, including a fastball that touches 97 mph. The pitch-count limit Andrews imposed should be enough to get Karsay through six innings, at which point he can turn things over to a solid if unspectacular bullpen. And it's not as if Karsay and the rest of Cleveland's starters are operating without a margin for error: Three fourths of the infield won Gold Gloves last year, and the Indians set a major league record for fewest errors in a season, with 72. Then there's the offense, which scored 950 runs last year (second in the league) and might have actually improved despite losing its most-feared hitter.
With the $20 million a year he saved by letting Manny Ramirez and his 409 RBIs over the last three seasons sign with the Red Sox, Hart obtained free-agent outfielders Ellis Burks and Juan Gonzalez. Burks, who hit .344 with 96 RBIs for the Giants, will bring stability to leftfield. The 32-year-old Gonzalez, meanwhile, brings a big bat and plenty of baggage. He has driven in more runs per game over the past five years than anyone else in baseball, but last season, injuries and a general disdain for Detroit—with its frigid weather and its spacious new park—combined to send his numbers, not to mention his market value, south. Hart got him for one year at $10 million. "Hitters don't change," Hart says. "Not at his age. We've seen this guy. We know what he's all about."
Ironically, the one year the Indians were hitting on every cylinder as the season ended—they outscored their opponents by two runs a game over the final month-was the one year since 1994 that they missed the playoffs. "We were definitely peaking at the right time," says Karsay.
But as Manuel points out, "We were playing good, but you know what? We didn't get in. And that will be the motivation for us this year."
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